Lawrence Kasdan’s “Grand Canyon” begins in much the same way as “The Bonfire of the Vanities,” as a white man driving a luxury car strays off his usual route and finds himself threatened by black youths in a deserted urban landscape. But at that point the two stories take different paths, because this is a film about possibilities, not fears. At first, to be sure, the white man (Kevin Kline) believes he is going to be killed by the ominous black muggers, one of whom displays a gun. But then a tow truck arrives, driven by another black man (Danny Glover), who talks to the leader of the would-be thieves and defuses the situation.
The dialogue in this scene, and throughout the movie, does not simply exist to push along the plot. It is the way we really think and talk in various situations. “Do you respect me, or do you respect my gun?” the gang leader asks Glover, who looks him in the eye and says, “You don’t have that gun, there’s no way we’re having this conversation.” And that honesty somehow satisfies the man with the gun.
Honesty is all through “Grand Canyon,” which is about several characters who would never, in the ordinary course of events, meet one another. Kline plays a wealthy accountant attached to the entertainment industry; Glover is a divorced, hardworking tow-truck driver. A few days after the street incident, Kline seeks out Glover for a cup of coffee because, he says, he wants to thank the man who saved his life. He doesn’t want it to be just a chance meeting in the night.
This impulse - to break down the barriers that society erects between people - is what “Grand Canyon” is about. It takes place in a Los Angeles that is painted as ominous and threatening, an alienating landscape where rich people pile up bulwarks of money and distance to protect them from the dangers of poverty and despair. But the Kline character believes that he has been granted a new life, and he wants to lead it a little differently this time. Like the characters in two other Kasdan movies, “The Big Chill” and “The Accidental Tourist,” he finds that the nearness of death can be an inspiration to live more thoughtfully.